A Student Bill of Fights

A Student Bill of Fights

The right takes aim at the ivory tower–brandishing a new legislative agenda.


Emboldened by political victory, the right has gone hunting in the last refuge of the liberal elite–our universities–to smoke out radicals. Everyone knows about Ward Churchill, whose talk at Hamilton College was canceled once a student Googled an essay of his that mentioned “little Eichmanns” in the World Trade Center. Bill O’Reilly attacked, and Governor Bill Owens demanded that the University of Colorado fire him. Also consider Oneida Meranto, a political science professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. Conservative students complained about her liberal bias in class and got support from reactionary ex-radical David Horowitz, who is promoting an “academic bill of rights” in state legislatures. There’s also Elyse Crystall, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, who objected to the comments of a “white, heterosexual, Christian male” in her class. She got bad press, hate e-mails and the attention of Representative Walter Jones, who persuaded the Office for Civil Rights of the US Education Department to investigate. She was found guilty of harassment.

The ivory tower is now face to face with politics. If there’s any doubt, just consider Larry Mumper, state senator from Marion, Ohio. Well-liked among colleagues, he’s served since 1997 without much controversial legislation to his name. Now he’s known for Senate Bill (SB) 24, an academic bill of rights that would require “curricula and reading lists” at all Ohio colleges (public and private) to “provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints” (calling all publishers of Holocaust deniers and flat-earthers!). The bill argues that faculty should “not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” One fellow state senator told me that SB 24 came “out of the blue.” He was used to talking about soybeans and crop labeling with Mumper, not this.

Mumper’s comments to the press illustrate how unprepared he was for attention. He explained to the Columbus Dispatch that “80 percent or so” of professors “are Democrats, liberals or socialists or card-carrying Communists,” as if for a moment he forgot what decade he lived in. When a journalist asked him if he had ever met a communist, Mumper explained the term was a euphemism for “people who try to over-regulate and try to bring in a lot of issues we don’t agree with.” At the same time, he admitted that “we’re going to put in some ways to monitor classrooms” to enforce the academic bill of rights. The irony of this was noted by numerous commentators.

Mumper told another reporter that funding cuts were “always in the back” of his mind. He elaborated, “Why should we, as fairly moderate to conservative legislators, continue to support universities that turn out students who rail against the very policies that their parents voted us in for?” One of Mumper’s co-sponsors explained that parents were tired of paying taxes for education “and then finding out their kids are being taught things that do not reflect their family values.” It’s as if Sinclair Lewis came back to rewrite Babbitt with its central character winning public office.

The state senators opposing SB 24 speak of a “coordinated national campaign.” They’re right. A right-wing infrastructure has been hard at work on this issue. Most important are David Horowitz and his organization Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), which has been documenting cases of alleged liberal bias in the classroom on its website. Now they’re pushing the academic bill of rights, which they argue is necessary to protect students who would otherwise fall prey to the liberal professoriate. In my own university newspaper, conservative students likened their cause to the civil rights movement.

The campaign is making headway. In addition to Ohio, so-called academic bills of rights have now been introduced in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Maryland and New York. After protests emerged from some savvy faculty in Colorado, the legislature yanked its version of the bill and accepted a less binding agreement. Something similar happened in Georgia. And in California the bill has been reintroduced after being killed earlier.

The impact has even reached the national level. In late 2003 Congress introduced legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA). Georgia Representative Jack Kingston–a congressman who wants the Ten Commandments posted in the House and Senate chambers–tried to attach an academic bill of rights to the reauthorization. This resolution would have prevented professors “from using their courses or their positions for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination.” The resolution died in committee, but its language has since appeared in the College Opportunity and Access Act of 2004, another legislative attempt to reauthorize the HEA.

It’s not clear how many actual laws will emerge from this maneuvering. But in the realm of symbolic politics, passing legislation might not matter so much as influencing public opinion. Horowitz himself explained, “The only reason for these laws is to stimulate an attack of conscience.” This fits his overall strategy. As he wrote in his manifesto The Art of Political War, “In political warfare, the weapons are words and symbols because there is no time to reach the electorate with lengthy arguments–or even short ones.” So get ready for a war over the popular perception of academia. It’s fueled by a long legacy of anti-intellectualism and right-wing populism that focuses anger on liberal eggheads.

Unfortunately, America’s professoriate is in a weakened state, and is ill prepared to fight back–notwithstanding the false stereotypes Horowitz promulgates in doing battle. For instance, during an exchange, Horowitz labeled Graham Larkin, an art professor at Stanford University, a “reactionary” defending “an entrenched class of privileged academics with lifetime tenure.” When Horowitz spoke at the University of Colorado, a newspaper reported his characterization of professors as “a privileged elite that work between six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for an annual salary of about $150,000.” Obviously, Horowitz should visit a few more universities–especially the growing number of for-profit and on-line institutions, community colleges and state schools in urban settings. Here most of the teaching is off the tenure track, performed by underpaid adjuncts with as much job security as employees at McDonald’s. As future state cuts are made by the very same GOP legislatures considering passage of academic bills of rights, this trend only promises to become worse.

The battle against the academic bill of rights–and the even more important struggle to insure more funding for education in the future–will be an uphill one. The right is hungry for war; it might not have “lengthy arguments,” but it has a well-honed arsenal of ideas and infrastructure ready for action. It has zeal and couldn’t care less about the fragility of higher-education institutions it attacks. That’s why it’s important for liberals to wage a counterbattle. If they don’t, we might find politicians visiting college classrooms, sniffing out card-carrying communists, euphemistic or otherwise. Nothing could be worse for higher education or democracy.

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